Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a seriocomic meditation on life, death, language, the theater, and free will. The play itself becomes a metaphor for life as its two principal characters struggle to find their way through its maze of events, lacking any memory of what has gone before and drawn inexorably toward their own deaths. Like all characters, their actions are predetermined by the playwright’s wishes, and they find themselves unable to perform any action that breaks with the dramatic flow of the plot—in their case, that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Their first memory coincides with the first mention of their names in Hamlet and when they are not active participants in a scene from that play, they exist in a kind of limbo, where they search with increasing despair for the reasons behind their situation—that is to say, for the meaning of their lives.

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At the end of their baffling journey lies their death, as inevitable for them (because of the course of Hamlet’s plot) as it is in each human life. Hints of their death appear throughout the play, beginning with its title and Tom Stoppard’s assumption of familiarity with Hamlet on the part of the audience. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, the foreshadowings are less overt, but still unmistakable. During his first encounter with The Player, Guildenstern correctly interprets the actor as the harbinger of his own doom:It could have been—a bird out of season, dropping bright-feathered on my shoulder. . . . It could have been a tongueless dwarf standing by the road to point the way. . . . I was prepared. But it’s this, is it? No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only this—a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes.

When death at last arrives, it coincides with their final mention in Shakespeare’s play.

In choosing Hamlet as the framework for his play, Stoppard places his characters inside a theatrical reference with which much of his audience will be readily familiar—a necessity in understanding the play. Shakespeare is not his only reference, however; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead owes as much to Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), with its two characters caught in their own paralyzing limbo, as it does to Hamlet. Stoppard is also interested in such theatrical concerns as actors’ lives, appearance and reality, and dramatic conventions, with which he plays throughout the play. In several instances he “breaks the fourth wall” by having his characters acknowledge the presence of the audience and, by inference, the fact that they are indeed characters in a play. There is often a sense of the “actor’s nightmare” in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s dilemma: the terrifying dream of finding oneself on stage in an unfamiliar play, uncertain of the lines or the story still to come.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

Human Condition
Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead blends two stories—Shakespeare's Hamlet and Stoppard's own version of how the two courtiers might have felt and behaved after they were summoned by King Claudius to spy on their schoolmate, Hamlet.

When Stoppard decided to write about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he was free to give them personalities of his own because Shakespeare had hardly given them any personalities at all. He was also free to let them speak in a more colloquial language and to elaborate on aspects of their lives that Shakespeare did not specify, such as what they might have done with Hamlet on the ship to England. But once Stoppard chose to blend his story with Shakespeare's, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were fated to die at the end of Stoppard's story because they die at the end of Shakespeare's. Stoppard uses this literary fatalism as a metaphor for the fate that awaits all human beings—the inevitability of death.

The play begins with Stoppard's story, as two very un-Shakespearean courtiers flip coins as they pause on the road to Elsinore. The extraordinary suspension of the laws of probability that permits over 100 coins to land "heads" before one lands "tails" indicates that there is something special about this day. And when a coin finally lands "tails" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are immediately swept out of Stoppard's story and back into Shakespeare's, from which they originally came. Once they are placed in Shakespeare's story, their fate is sealed. They will die at the end, even though they shift back and forth from the Shakespearean to the Stoppardian story. What was special about this day is that it set in motion the events that would lead to their deaths.

Fate is something that has already been decided, something humans have no control over, something that will happen whatever human beings do, and the literary fatality that comes from entering a world where events are already decided gives Stoppard the metaphor he needs for human fate. Though they resist accepting the fact, human beings are doomed to die as soon as they enter the world.

When the tragedians first arrive in Stoppard's story, Guildenstern says "it was chance, then ... [that] you found us," and the Player says, "or fate." Subsequent references to "getting caught up in the action" of the Shakespeare play are frequent, as are references to not having any "control." And when the Player says in their dress rehearsal for The Murder of Gonzago that "everyone who is marked for death dies," Guildenstern asks, "Who decides?" and the Player responds, "Decides? It is written.''

Art and Experience
Stoppard elaborates on the theme of fate by exploring the relationship between art and experience. Throughout the play, he uses the tragedians and their spokesperson, the Player, to emphasize that art can create an illusion that is often more real and convincing than the experience of ordinary life.

The tragedians specialize in portraying death on stage, but Guildenstern argues that their version of death is not "real." The Player responds by saying that the fictional representation of death is the only version that human beings will believe. He recalls the time he arranged for one of his actors condemned to be hanged to meet his execution on stage. However, to his surprise, the audience jeered and threw peanuts at this "real death'' and the actor couldn't accept his fate calmly, crying the whole time, "right out of character.''

Sigmund Freud asserted that human beings are psychologically incapable of seeing themselves as dead. When we come close to dying in our dreams we wake up or alter the dream so we become spectators ourselves, and as soon as we exist as spectators we have not in fact died. In art, however, we can experience death vicariously and safely, testing our reactions to it in a way that paradoxically rehearses us for our own death while further distancing us from the reality of it. Playing the role of spectators is perhaps as close as humans can ever get to accepting the reality of their human mortality.

This assertion is demonstrated most effectively in Act III, when the frustrated Guildenstern attacks the Player and seems to stab him fatally in the neck with a dagger. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, audience members initially unaware of the retractable blade in the stage dagger will experience a moment of shock when it appears that a real death has taken place on stage. But almost immediately we remember that we are at a play and that this death cannot possibly be real. When the Player comes to his feet to the applause of his fellow tragedians, the audience laughs in relief, as does Rosencrantz, who applauds and calls for an encore.

Death
The theme of humans denying their own mortality also helps to explain a number of problematic points in the play. When, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that the letter from Claudius orders Hamlet's death, the generally sympathetic and pleasant pair distance themselves from the fact and justify their non-involvement. As disagreeable and unheroic as this behavior might be, it is in keeping with Stoppard's theme. Guildenstern justifies his non-involvement by feigning acceptance of "the designs of fate," and Rosencrantz's denial of responsibility is capped with a phrase that adumbrates the end of the play— "If we stopped breathing we'd vanish." Even more problematical, perhaps, is their behavior after discovering the revised letter that orders their own deaths. Shakespeare's pair were probably ignorant of the letter's contents and surprised by their executions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize they are delivering their own death warrants and do nothing to avoid it. But quite in character, Rosencrantz simply avoids thinking about it—"All right, then. I don't care. I've had enough. To tell you the truth, I'm relieved,'' while Guildenstern continues to look for explanations and escape routes—"there must have been a moment ... where we could have said— no." His final words are either a continued denial of the reality of his death or an acceptance of his status as a literary character—"well, we'll know better next time."

Stoppard's theme is probably best summed up by the speech that Rosencrantz makes in Act II about lying in a coffin. Quite out of the blue he says to Guildenstern, "do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?" Quite honestly and significantly, Guildenstern says "no" and Rosencrantz echoes his response. But then the usually dim-witted Rosencrantz touches on the essential problem—"one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead ... which should make all the difference ... shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box." When human beings attempt to think about their deaths, they assume some kind of continued consciousness. Ironically, Rosencrantz demonstrates in this speech the very kind of thinking he has just categorized as "silly." After characterizing death as a kind of sleep, he associates death with a mortal dream state, complete with the possibility of waking to full consciousness and a sense of helplessness—"not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without air." Unable to conceptualize his own death he refuses to fully accept that "for all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure."

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